Fall 2007, Volume 24.1
Susan Marsh lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Her
essays have appeared in Orion, North American Review, and numerous other
journals and anthologies. She edited Stories of the Wild (The Murie
Center, 2001) and is coauthor of Beyond the Tetons (White Willow, 1999).
She received the 2003 Neltje Blanchan Memorial Award from the Wyoming Arts
Council for literature inspired by the natural world.
Like the unsolved riddle of a half-remembered rhyme, she haunted me. Whenever someone mentioned Maine a seed found soil, to spring up unexpectedly days or weeks later. The waiter who served me a beer last fall in Jackson Hole grew up in Maine, and soon he and my table companion were discussing the price of lobster and the way the Gulf Stream warmed the northern coves all winter and where to buy a decent cup of coffee.
He glanced my way. "Ever been?"
I shook my head. "No, but I have a friend there."
"Ya gotta go. September’s the best."
"Thanks for the tip." I paused and added, "My friend, I’d like to visit her."
Later, I turned those words over in my mind. I’d like to visit meant I wish I could. I was still not ready to concede the irrevocable past tense.
Nancy was my dearest friend in high school, though in many respects I hardly knew her. What I mean to say is that I fiercely loved her, while having no clear picture of the person behind the façade she chose to reveal. A mysterious soul with cryptic modes of expression and inscrutable artist’s ways, she was often tangled in nets of tribulation, the sort that carry a whiff of scandal and make a person fascinating. Locked out of her stepmother’s house for a murky series of transgressions, she moved in with her Spanish teacher, a woman who had traveled to Spain and knew something of its music and cuisine, whose friends included poets and folk singers and people who’d spent some time in jail, a single woman who was rumored to be, in 1960s parlance, a "latent homosexual." Whatever their relationship, Nancy and her roommate carried enough bohemian glamor to lend an obedient Catholic girl like me a veneer of the exotic. But being friends with Nancy was like standing beside a metal rod during a thunderstorm. This much I knew: she was not ordinary. Sunshine, she used to call me; she was my shadow side.
We both left Seattle in our early twenties, me for the wildest mountains I could find and she for Washington D.C., Maryland, and Delaware before settling in Maine. After my exchange with the waiter, some thirty years from the time I last talked to Nancy, she began to inhabit my dreams, not a passing memory but the anticipation of a visit yet to come. On a mild October afternoon in the mountains of Wyoming we had our long-awaited rendezvous.
The Hoback Basin, just shy of the rim between the Colorado and Columbia River watersheds, contains a sinuous ridge that divides the seasons as well as the land. Sagebrush dusts its cobbled south-facing ramps, while October’s raking light falls through the aspens and stains the ground beneath them gold. But on the north side of Raspberry Ridge, in the gloom under heavy spruce and fir, week-old snow lies as pristine as the day it fell. I follow a game trail along the top, winter nudging my left shoulder, while my right side basks in the warmth of an Indian summer afternoon.
Familiar landmarks surround me here: far to the south stands Triple Peak, a distant shade of blue barely distinguishable from the sky. Its three matching domes swell like loaves, each of them over eleven thousand feet. In the opposite direction The Sawtooth cuts a closer profile, a jawbone full of limestone molars. But when I turn to face the shadow side, my gaze cannot penetrate the dominion of the forest. In the dim light all I see are ghost-gray tree boles and knots of dead witch’s broom on the lower branches. No wildflower has ever sprouted here. On the shadow side, even sunshine can get lost.
A modest feature between the Gros Ventre and Wyoming Ranges, Raspberry Ridge is a classic example of the effects of slope and aspect in the arid West. Forest or sage, each side exists because of the other; without the ridge both would be flat ground. A simple fact of topography, but my reflective mood lends everything around me added meaning, and today the ridge I’ve hiked for years splits into opposing metaphors that ask for fresh consideration. One side invites and the other forbids. The present and the past, the familiar and the foreign. Drawn toward the sinister slope even as the aspens erupt with the short-lived brilliance I’ve been waiting for all year, I hover at the brink of darkness. Fascination abides with the unknown, and the tension holds me like a dewdrop on a web.
The shadow side is not flamboyant; neither is it lifeless. Here the wild things find refuge and escape. At my approach a blue grouse flushes with a gust of wing beats and sails far down the slope, leaving my heart pounding with surprise. After the grouse disappears the silence is fractured by more ominous sounds. A snapping branch, a muted shriek, a brusque woof—the last close enough to electrify my neck hairs as I scan for the rambling bulk of a bear.
What is my attraction to this slope—does my shadow self walk beside me here? Across what gulf might I reach for her? A diurnal creature of gentle ground and beveled trail, I tentatively step into the forest. "Hey, bear," I shout, playing it safe.
My boot prints follow a coyote’s track until I reach the spot where the coyote plunged straight down. A mule deer has left its scuff marks in the powder and touched the earth again some thirty feet below. In a single leap the deer covered the distance I would make in fifteen minutes of crab walking.
Trying to continue, I slip on an icy branch hidden under snow, take another step and my foot goes out from under me again. I give up and scramble back to the top, relieved but vaguely disappointed. The shadow side belongs to the fleet deer hoof and coyote paw, not clumsy, hesitant steps like mine. The trees brandish sharp stubs of broken branches, most of them at eye level. The ground is littered with slippery sticks and cobbles round as eggs, each ready to roll under the pressure of a hiking boot.
Having retreated back to the sunlit slope where I belong, I lie with my back pressed into the warm earth. A new medley arrives, music I would not hear on the shadow side—the rhythmic snap of a grasshopper, the whine of a tiny bee, a zephyr rattling through dry flower stalks. The breeze tears off an aspen leaf and it lights on my sleeve with a gentle slap. I am pleased, as if the leaf has chosen me.
Shreds of cloud begin to coalesce and stall. They turn and twist upon themselves and pull apart, vanishing back into the blue, forming and dissipating in a single gesture. How little separates existence from oblivion, the continuum along which all clouds lie. No divide distinguishes invisible vapor from the battleship solidity of a thunderhead.
The cusp between my warm perch and the shadow side is ephemeral as well, everchanging as the sun swings across the sky. Uneasy with all of this fluidity, I seek a set of lines to stay within, casting about for anything that might be called a border. I pick the aspen leaf from my shirt and hold it up. Sharp and certain, its margin will serve my need. But the edge quivers as I flip it between my fingers, and sunlight passes as if through molten glass. There is no boundary after all between a fallen leaf and the endless blue of sky.
I return to watching the clouds that come together and dissolve above the ridge. Each time they unite I see another form—the bear whose warning issued from the dark slope a few minutes ago, the deer whose tracks are days old. Without knowing it, I have been preparing my mind, making it porous for her visit. All at once I feel her presence.
I’m alert and sitting up, as if she’d just settled beside me and given me a shake. "Hey, Sunshine, what’s new?"
Sunshine, she called me, but together we once sought remote ocean beaches on stormy winter days, wandering the gray and misty Washington coast with cheap guitars slung over our backs and little need for conversation. We played melancholy songs that seemed heavy with significance. Finding shelter among the driftwood logs, Nancy lay on her back and watched the sky. Did the clouds above her gather and pull apart the way they do in the mountains? I was busy practicing chords and never noticed.
Nancy was a native dweller of the shadow side. I walked the firm ramps of sand, while she strode into the breakers, up to her thighs in the frigid sea. She slipped away on unseen paths of kelp and shell and pebble, seeking the loneliest stretches of coast where the sound of waves enclosed her like four walls. The way she sat on an isolated log—contentment and yearning in her eyes as she stared toward a place beyond my imagining—told me she did not look for company.
We had no falling-out, just a slackening trickle of correspondence after she moved to the East. Both of us sulked because the other had not written; both of us sought in the other something we could neither define nor give. Sunshine. Shadows. Ardor as demanding as that of a jealous lover, steadfast as that of a mother for her child.
In an odd reversal of affinity and circumstance, our lives took each of us in a direction that might have belonged to the other. She immersed herself in the urban art scene, while I escaped to the wild. Perhaps she sought vitality on sidewalks bustling with workday crowds, swept into the flow of life by its sheer volume. I sought untracked ridges in the Rockies where I could fill my lungs with sweet mountain air and, in that deeply held breath, find the silent place within.
She last wrote in 1981, after a series of illnesses, accidents, and job losses, two marriages and two divorces, and numerous changes of address. Her final letter came in the form of a scribbled note on the back of a photograph, a picture of her working at a drafting table. A graphic artist for a newspaper in Freeport, Maine, preparing for a one-woman show at a local gallery, she wrote that she had found her place at last. Yes, I whispered to the image in slightly out-of-focus black and white, returning the smile that beamed from a desktop littered with quill pens and drawing pencils. A postscript was scrawled along the margin: "If you write, so will I." She was offering reconciliation for the estrangement neither of us understood. I slipped the picture into its envelope and immediately wrote back, a multi-page letter filled with news and apologies and secrets. I never heard from her again.
At a high school reunion ten years later I wondered aloud if Nancy might show up. Christine gave me a puzzled look.
"I assumed you knew," she said.
"She was killed."
I stared at her.
"Car wreck or something," she said, fluttering her fingers to indicate details that had long escaped her.
"It’s been a while…. I really don’t remember."
"Are you sure?"
She shrugged and said it was only something that she’d heard.
My throat closed and I couldn’t speak. The calamity might have happened years previous—perhaps the day she sent me that photograph, on her way home from the post office. I tried to recall the times I’d suddenly come awake from troubled sleep, or felt an unaccountable dread on an otherwise fine day. For the rest of the evening I hung on the edge of nausea. The shadow side my friend had pursued claimed her at last.
Home in Wyoming after the reunion, I took her picture from its worn envelope. There she was again, each hand gripping a drawing pen as she bent over the clutter of her desk. The cheerful face of success I remembered was not there after all—her smile appeared forced, as if she were only indulging the photographer. Weariness lined her eyes, and she looked as if she had not slept.
The picture gave me what I needed if I wanted to learn the facts, if I wanted to scribe a line as definite as Raspberry Ridge into my life—before and after, the world that included Nancy and the one that did not. I found the newspaper’s address in Freeport, Maine, and scoured the Seattle phone book for Nancy’s half-sister, but took no further steps to trace that indelible line. The ambiguity of hearsay, from a former classmate who knew neither the story’s details or its truth, better fit the memory of one who lived on the shadow side. Certainty would have brought nothing more than sorrow and the knowledge that the possible was spent. Certainty was the difference between an aspen leaf in mid-air and one fallen to the earth and starting to decay; the airborne leaf might catch a thermal, spiral high into the sky and pursue a thousand prospects, each as likely as any other depending on what happens next. With certainty, nothing happens next.
Did Nancy call me Sunshine because she saw my need to stay in the clear and open places? At seventeen, she was already over the edge. I flirted at the margins of her territory, retreating to safety when the night became too black, the ocean’s breakers too insistent. We all choose according to our inclinations—sunlight or shadow, darkness or light. The dark side seduces with its mystery, but to linger there is risky; you may never find your way back.
The image that stays with me is of Nancy at a ramshackle resort called Ocean Shores on a cold night in April, slipping out the cabin door during our high school senior retreat. Rain pecked at the windows, while the rest of us gathered near the fireplace late into the evening, unable to follow Nancy as she walked alone with the pounding surf and intermittent stars. Perhaps she lay in the shelter of a driftwood log, staring at the sky. Perhaps she had gone wading in the surf, soaking her shoes, her jeans, her loose wool sweater. Perhaps like a selkie magically changing forms, she had headed out to sea.
A state of being lies beyond the shadow side, ethereal as a shred of cloud, dwelling where everything is possible and nothing is fixed. There I may learn the secrets of the mountain creatures that leave their tracks in week-old snow. There I may leave my own footprints on a ramp of ocean sand. Where lies the borderline between these states of being—a friend lost to time and distance, or a friend gone over the final brink? In either state she is gone. But in either state the boundary is permeable, and I find her as I watch the clouds unravel over Raspberry Ridge.
I stand and turn, disoriented, Rocky Mountain clay grinding underfoot along with the cool give of Pacific Ocean sand.
"Hey, Sunshine," repeats the voice beside me. "Let’s walk; we haven’t got much time."
Old pathways open in my mind as I recall how I perceived the world when it included Nancy. Is this what people do at a séance, remembering so intensely that their thoughts begin to run in directions long forgotten, allowing voices long silent to speak again? Like a river rediscovering a dry channel, my mind follows eagerly, quenching the shoals of memory. My view from the bright water is an assemblage of people and places once familiar, the landscape of my youth.
The shade that walks beside me on the ridge is a smiling woman in her fifties, her long brown hair replaced by a bob now flecked with silver. A few pounds heavier, like me. Her media are lithography, intaglio, and India ink: black and white, shadows and light. Her collages portray life on city streets, and as she shows them to me I’m transported to places I’ve never been. I smell wet wool overcoats and rain on pavement, catch bits of quiet conversation as people hurry home on a winter afternoon, umbrellas clacking as they pass.
Walking together down the long staircase of Raspberry Ridge, we summarize our lives, leaving out events that once seemed important but which, after so many years, no longer matter. When our river of words runs dry, we smile into each other’s faces. I love you, we say together before we part, knowing it is for the last time.
I continue alone down the homeward trail and the haunting rhymes and riddles lift like aspen leaves on a thermal, joining the realm of unexplored possibilities and uncertain outcomes, rising until they join the shifting wisps of cloud and disappear.